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Judd Zulgad

Capable Kirill

Kaprizov lugging the weight of the Wild’s offense on his back

Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov's goal-scoring is keeping his team's playoff hopes afloat. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Kirill Kaprizov might not speak fluent English — the Russian-born star still relies heavily on an interpreter during interviews — but he speaks fluent hockey and that means never taking credit for your accomplishments, no matter how impressive they might be.

Mats Zuccarello embraces his linemate after one of Kaprizov’s three goals in a 6-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff first-round series on May 4, 2022 at Xcel Energy Center (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The latest example came after the Wild’s 4-3 victory over Nashville on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center, in which Kaprizov scored twice for his offensively challenged team.

“Ultimately every guy has got to step up, work hard and enjoy the game, love the game,” Kaprizov said. “If we do that, we’ll continue to find ways to score. I don’t care who scores. It’s great that I score. But ultimately we want to win, we want to win games and that’s what it comes down to. I don’t care if the goalie scores as long as we win the game, that’s all that really matters.”

That deflection of a question about the pressure Kaprizov is feeling these days to carry the Wild might have been better than any deflection he’s put past a goalie this season. So let’s cut through the niceties and deal with facts: The Wild’s playoff hopes would be gone, if it weren’t for the 25-year-old left winger.

The win over the Predators was the Wild’s second in a row on a seven-game homestand that started with a loss to the Golden Knights, a shootout win over the Devils, a shootout loss to the Panthers and then a disappointing one-goal loss to the Avalanche. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had one of his worst games of the season against Colorado, but the Wild only scored six goals in the first four games, if you take away the nonsense that is a shootout goal.

Kaprizov’s two tallies against the Predators gave him 33 goals and 66 points in 56 games this season. Kaprizov is the team leader in goals by 12 — Joel Eriksson Ek is next with 21 — and his points are 10 more than linemate Mats Zuccarello.

“I hope we never trade him because I don’t want him to come down on me because it seems like he always finds a hole somewhere,” said Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson, who stopped 23 shots against the Predators and has become the Wild’s top goalie. “It’s incredible how some players just have that and they score on everything.”

So what makes them special?

“I don’t know,” Gustavsson said after much thought. “Mostly they do … at least for me as a goalie, I always try and read where they shoot, how they angle the stick, the blade and how their body language is. Some of those guys don’t show anything, they don’t give anything away and just, all of a sudden, it comes at 80 miles an hour and you don’t know exactly where it’s going before it’s in the air and when it’s in the air it’s usually too late.”

Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala celebrate the former’s first period goal, No. 46 on the season, in a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames on April, 28, 2022 at Xcel Energy Center (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Kaprivoz’s scoring touch was vital last season as he finished with 47 goals and 108 points, but the balance was spread around a bit more as second-line winger Kevin Fiala contributed 33 goals and 85 points. Fiala was traded in the offseason for salary-cap reasons and now has 21 goals and 61 points in 57 games with the Los Angeles Kings.

His production hasn’t been replaced.

That has put more pressure on Kaprizov and there have been times it looks as if he’s trying to do too much. Who can blame him? When Brandon Duhaime scored his fifth goal of the season only nine seconds into the second period against the Predators, it ended a drought of 413 minutes, 37 seconds of the Wild not scoring without Kaprizov on the ice. That dated seven games to the third period of a Feb. 6 loss at Arizona.

Kaprizov’s two goals against the Predators included one of three the Wild scored at even strength. They entered the game having scored only 13 five-on-five goals in the past 14. In that 14-game span, Kaprizov had six goals and 13 points, including three goals on the power play.

Wild coach Dean Evason said he hasn’t had to talk to Kaprizov about not putting too much pressure on himself individually, but he recently talked to the first line of Kaprizov, Zuccarello and center Ryan Hartman about their approach.

“We brought their line in because we thought they were trying to force offense too early (against Dallas),” Evason said. “Before we got into the offensive zone. It’s not just Kirill but that line in particular. It’s a credit to them, they are trying hard, but they were trying to create offense in the defensive zone by making pretty plays down there or through the neutral zone. 

“We asked them just to get through those two zones to use their abilities to score and be creative in the offensive zone. I thought they did a great job of that tonight (against Nashville).”

Hartman, in fact, ended up deflecting in the winning goal off a Jonas Brodin shot with less than a minute left in the third period, after former Wild winger Nino Niederreiter had scored only 26 seconds earlier as the Predators rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie it.

The Wild got a valuable two points to remain in the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference, two points ahead of the Flames. Minnesota also stopped the Predators from getting at least one valuable point in the playoff race.

“With wins, obviously, it kind of gives everyone confidence, so that’s not just me,” Kaprizov said. “Everyone can start scoring, the team starts playing better and with wins, more wins will come. I like to say, live and see what happens.”

That’s a lot more fun for the Wild with Capable Kirill shouldering so much of the scoring load.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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